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Trainer or psychologist?

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By now, some readers are thinking that dog training is looking awfully complicated.  Heck, they just want to get a couple of titles.  Have some fun on the weekends; make new friends.  And here’s a blogger suggesting that each dog she’s trained is an act of perpetual psychology; make a few wrong moves and damage the team.

The good news is that most dogs are highly forgiving – you’ll be able to make lots of mistakes and they’ll never let on. The percentage of relatively straightforward dogs rises if your goal is to trial only a few times a year; mostly to get the titles.   And if you select the “right” dog, and use a method of training that has proven effective with that type of dog, you’ll have even more success.  It helps if you’re not sweating the picture too much.

If you know that you’re temperamentally unable to stand frustration and you want great success, then I’m going to suggest you select your breed, individual puppy and training method very carefully to get the stars aligned in your favor.  Really.  There’s no point in knocking your head against the wall if your primary interest is to succeed via the scoresheet.

The trade off, of course, is that the easy ones dont’ advance our skills very much.  But sometimes what we need to learn is simply basic mechanics, in which case the best choice is to select for a highly forgiving, willing and stable partner, at least to start.

“Forgiveness”, “willingness” and “stability” will take you far in the sport of obedience.  I’d say it’s 90% of the battle, once you master those pesky technical skills.  Because if your dog has forgiven you whatever you did to get the skills taught, isn’t having a personal meltdown at the dog show, and wants to make you happy even when you’re not dangling a cookie, then the future is bright indeed.

But with dogs lacking one or more of those qualities, teaching the exercises ends up being the easy part.  Getting those skills into the ring – well, that’s another kettle of fish.  And if you want a dog that shows a relaxed, happy picture….now you’re in the realm of serious challenge.

If you have already selected your non-traditional obedience breed and don’t plan to switch, or you currently own a dog that you’re training for competition, or you’ve discovered that your traditional obedience dog isn’t acting traditionally, then being something of a doggy psychologist is probably a good idea, especially if you’re running into trouble.  For me, that’s the part of training that is interesting – figuring out how to keep the entire team emotionally comfortable, happy and willing.

The best thing about reading a blog is that you don’t have to.  You could go outside and train your dog instead.  But if you’re still here, it’s possible, or even likely, that you’re sort of interested in your dog as a partner; you’d like to understand what is happening inside that furry head and make things as good as possible for the team, not just the human.  In which case, I’d say we’re off to a good start, because my goal in teaching is to help others think like doggy psychologists too.

My new puppy is only 12 days away now.   I cant’ wait to meet her!

About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

17 responses »

  1. I’m am sitting on the edge of my seat waiting to hear more. If I could have ANYTHING in the world…personal jets, millions of dollars, dates with Brad Pitt…I would trade everything just to understand what is going on in Norton’s mind.

    Thanks for helping.

    • Robin C., this blog may end up being disappointing for you, because it definitely won’t be a “how to”. More a description of things I see, or problems I’ve dealt with, and hopefully something will ring a bell with you, or a video will show you something you could try….I know your dog is advanced, but for starters look at the stuff I was doing with the little Dutch Shepherd puppy Ksimet…think about choice, and how you could apply that to your dog’s work in stressful environments. Does your dog get to choose to work? Can your dog say no? How do you know when your dog is ready to work in new situations? Think about it, and see what comes to you.

      • Denise, your blog has ***already*** been a help to me. I can already see the impact of trying these ideas on my Aussie and BC. I totally understand what you are saying. My frustration/fascination is with my Keeshond, Norton. Whereas I understand what my other 3 dogs are telling me, I just can’t figure out why Norton is doing the things that he does. I’ve been to four of the top trainers in the midwest/east. Each of them have had a different interpretation of Norton’s behavior. This is comforting to me because I think I am a pretty savvy dog trainer. Maybe I’ll never know what is going on in his furry head, but I am having a blast trying to figure it out.


  2. Oh gosh, yes. Having a temperamental dog does so make this difficult. My dog is willing- she so badly wants to work with me. She’s even forgiving- I’ve put her in some stupid situations, but she still trusts me. But stable? Even on medication, there’s something to be desired there.

    And yet the challenge is so fun. Having a “crazy” dog has forced me to learn a lot about dogs in general, and this one in particular. It has deepened our relationship in a way that might not have happened had she been a bit more normal. And I wouldn’t trade her for the world.

  3. One has to be both. Thank you for blogging. You are an inspiration to me.

  4. Yup, for some dogs, teaching the competition behaviors is the most straightforward part. For my current obedience dog, knowing the exercises is not the barrier — it is *can you focus & not worry in this location at this time*? Or is the dog busy looking over her shoulder for who-know-what? The dog of whom I speak could not go outside in the front yard at midnight the other night and go potty [she normally goes in the back yard]. She was very alert and looking all around at the quiet street & neighbor yards. [My two male dogs have not had any problems pottying in the front yard late at night.] This dig learned to pick up the dumbell off the ground in two clicker sessions…. So, oh yes, the role of psychologist is part of dog training. Thanks for the post.

  5. It’s a big debate I have in my head all the time. Take the dog not built fornthis competitive obedience and train trial and learn? Or move on. I keep thinking every new week with him is learning and making me better for the long run. Great thing to think about!

  6. I look forward to reading more! I’ve always felt dogs came into our lives for specific reasons. Now I’ve got the “this will make you a better trainer” dog. I am fascinated by him and after beating both of us over the head with my frustration, am enjoying unraveling the Malinois mystery. Training the exercises is the least of it.

    • TawnyHill Shepherds

      Melinda I was glad to see you here as I almost went over to your blog to tell you Denise was writing some of the same things you have been working on over the Summer with Phoenix!

    • Laurie Graichen

      I am truly enjoying both Melinda and Denise’s blogs. Those of you who are Susan Garrett fans have likely seen her YouTube video “The Journey”, but it’s always a good one to watch over and over again, especially when your current dog is causing frustration – I’ve actually downloaded it to my phone – but be sure to have plenty of tissues handy.

  7. I love your posts Denise! I just hope I can absorb it all and transfer that to my canine partner! I totally have a lot to learn and know that I have messed my dogs up in some way with my training and I only hope they look past me and just “get it”. LOL Keep the posts coming as I look forward to reading each and everyone.

  8. Great post, Denise – some of the same concepts are touched upon by Suzanne Clothier’s article “Hard to Train?” ( Her 3 trainable dog qualities are willingness, confidence, and intelligence (which she defines as environmental awareness/curiosity), but boy do I agree with you that forgiveness must be in the mix. And yes, it certainly has been my experience (with my nontraditional obed. dog – Kai Dog mix?) that the exercises were the easy part. And that was a tough lesson I had to learn very much on my own.

  9. Krissy (In Alaska)

    Fantastic Denise!!!
    I was on the edge of my seat!!! Such a journey this is huh?? Love it!!

  10. I’m really glad that I stumbled upon your blog and am enjoying reading your posts. I’ve had the pleasure of training 5 different breeds from 3 different groups- all with unique personality traits, gifts, and challenges. I am a moderate competitor who trials/shows lightly. However, I am fortunate to have earned an OTCH, several UDX’s, advanced retriever field titles, 3 MACHS, and now a few herding titles on my dogs, and have run in terrier earth dog trials.

    I can see your point about selecting a “traditional” performance breed and many people do that, especially in agility. I’ve owned different breeds for various reasons (spouse had an affinity for labs) and did train a bc and a golden – “traditional” breeds. But now I own the breed I always wanted, not a “performance” breed, and have no regrets. My spouse’s little terrier, while definitely “all terrier”, is a very easy dog to train and motivate.

    I believe every dog has gifts and challenges. Believe it or not, my bc was one of the hardest dogs that I ever trained because of his reactivity. I think it is too easy to fall back on the “labels” we give dogs and to lament that it’s not a bc/golden, whatever. It saddens me to see so many folks turn away from breeds they intrinsically enjoy in order to gain success in performance events. I no longer evaluate “success” by titles, scores, or other external criteria, but by the level of teamwork I’m able to achieve with my own dogs. Sometimes, that is even more challenging than it appears, but when you get that connection, it’s incredible.

    I’m excited to hear about your adventures with your new puppy!

    • Robann, I appreciate your comment. Sometimes I think people need to get success as judged by external criteria before they can appreciate what they really enjoy about dog sports. If I think about it, i fit in that category. I needed to “choose” to focus on teamwork after obtaining some traditional success, rather than wondering if my choice was because I was unable to success by traditional measures (scores).

      • I hope what I wrote didn’t sound judgemental… I didn’t mean it that way. One of the great things about the dogs and the dog world is that there is so much flexibility and variety. Different breeds, different sports, and different types of goals to aspire to. And the journey is often an unchartered path-sometimes possibilities reveal themselves that we were never aware of before.

        I’m really enjoying the honest perspective that your blog is offering and am looking forward to learning and growing as a trainer with the insights you are providing.

  11. Your words are ringing very true to me. I am still very new to obedience. I have a couple dogs with CDs, one with a CDX. My first dog sport love was agility, but I am fascinated by obedience and I love training it. It’s not the obedience exercises that I love so much, but the challenge of teaching the dog all the details, and keeping their spirits up, happy and motivated too. Obedience is definitely the most difficult dog sport I’ve tried so far.

    My little Danish-Swedish Farmdog is an nontraditional breed. Mostly because there are no other DSF that I know of that even do obedience (one other that I know of has a UCD). Some do agility, but they are a very new breed here in the USA. Even in their native countries I don’t think many compete in sports. They have a natural learning ability, they are smart, biddable, and small, all traits I was looking for in a breed. I think Jet has a great deal of potential for obedience, I just hope that I also have the potential, and that as a team we can work things out and get into that Utility ring someday.

    When I started in obedience I thought that all you had to do was train the exercises, and you were good to go. But now I realize there is something definitely missing in my understanding, and therefore my training. I love the breeds I love (Smooth Collies and the Danish-Swedish Farmdog) and I’m willing to go the extra mile to learn how to understand them and help them achieve what I believe we can in the ring.

    So like you say, I think I’m in that realm of serious challenge, and I’m willing to take the time and work thought it and discover some really fun and amazing things with my dogs! I do wish I could take a trip out to CA sometime and train with you. Maybe someday. I do appreciate the email help I’ve received so far.


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